Paradise is moonlight
Lighting fire to the canyon
In the darkness
Coming from so far away
Just to remind us
Every 28 days
Where we are
Geography, Rivers & Human Ecology
Paradise is moonlight
Lighting fire to the canyon
In the darkness
Coming from so far away
Just to remind us
Every 28 days
Where we are
I awake in the morning
Sleep shuddering in my legs
The weight of hand spun wool warm
Against the rise and fall of my navel
I wonder what we will do today
What new textures my hands will encounter
Which animals will need attention
If the sandy soil will be warm or cold
I wonder when I leave the turquoise door
If I will smell the blossom of damp desert
Or the ripe manure of the sheep
Or the lanolin
I can hear the soft tune of the wind
Walloping the cracks of the house
The silent hiss of the kettle boiling
The shuffle of Doña Maria and Antonio
I hear the birdsong outside
The pattering of water in the canal
The tremors of warming metal
Absorbing sunshine stretching
Here on the farm it is snowing
In the desert this is no dime-a-dozen day
Where the speckled earth shows its curves to the sky
Seducing the high blue until it lets go
What are we looking for
Standing on sand or stone
Fishing into the waves
Getting our feet wet
What are we looking for
Hooked and cast
Into the water
When we turn our eye
To the orange moon
The ironbound cliff
Fire in the place
Where fire burns
When we look at our hands
Lined with life
Telling stories that nobody writes
Our hands are truth
Look at your hands
And shadows on the deck
Don’t point North or South
And a dead reckon
Is all we have
What are we looking for
What the burning sun
Says to the corn
When it decides to grow
When grandma opens
The canned corn
And you take the kernels
To go fishing in the river
When the river fishes back
And pulls you in
What is it in the river
To the soul
About moving on
About the ocean
About no end beginning
About loving the dirt
About what moves Earth
To get at its ancient heart
What are we looking for?
In the sand
I am searching
In hand, a bone
I think it’s pelvic
Perfect for sand
Fits like a
I am looking for Papas
Pulling rosy cheeked
Hearts of starch
Sunshine from sand
Of the soil
Plopping its weight
I am here, and here comes a poem. Excavating potatoes, and excavating poems. These are not so different in fact. Both, for me, are currently the fruit of living. Finding poetry in sentience, finding papas in sand.
Last year, about this time, my dear friend Haleigh Paquette and I went on a walk in the woods. We wandered about in the lowlands, looking at beech and oak and spruce forests, ferns for minutes. Then we climbed up a gorge between familiar mountains, seeking views from the heights. At the notch, in the quiet spruce stand, the path no longer led on as one, but formed an intersection. Left up – right up – straight ahead the belly of the beast. We wandered straight, and encountering nobody but ourselves as we shared a world of a conversation.
Haleigh and I, when we get to talking, there is no evading the substance of mind, and so, this particular day, with no distraction but the sunshine and the forest, the wonderful spring of coastal mountain, we talked. As we wandered and wondered, and time passed as only time can when nobody is there to talk about it, Haleigh asked me questions, and I asked Haleigh questions. I started to feel something quite powerful during this talk. I was finishing school at the time, nearly graduated, and heading into the unknown. But I knew something. I knew something in the way that truth leaps up like a fire stoked.
It was poetry.
Not a poem. But rather a call. Like a spring wind beckoning to the fisherman, lapping the shore and stirring the fish to begin their festivities of summer. It was in the most wonderful way a natural sensation, a reciprocity.
Now, after a year of time, in the confusion of austral winter, and the staggering yet wonderful realization that we indeed live on a flying globe, I am harvesting potatoes, cutting alfalfa, walking with sheep and goats, feeding rabbits, and laughing at llamas. I am becoming friends with Doña Maria, an 82 year old woman who has lived here all her life, a cultivator of the soil and a pastora of animals, a hiladora who spins wool and weaves and knits. Also with Don Antonio, son of Doña Maria, a man of steady humor and grin who relinquished the life of the city to work the earth with his mother.
We three are living in a valley ringed by volcanoes to the north and east, a fractured canyonland of springs that arise from a series of geysers to the southeast, the canyon of the Rio Salado to the south, and the open desert to the west where in the night one can see the lights of the Chuquicamata Mine envying the scale of the stars above–Southern Cross, Orion, Scorpio, Taurus.
Turi, where we are, is a hermitage of sorts, home to a few that cultivate the land and run animals. There is a geothermal bath in the town, that leads to a canal which brings water to the house here, and to the east, just across the road is an enormous series of small hills covered by a lost city, a stone lattice of massive extent called la Pucará de Turi, the largest of the settlements left by the Atacameño culture.
While I am here, I am going to experiment in poetry. These poems will come spontaneously, and may not come with narrative such as this. But please, dear readers, let this be a turn of chapter as I enter the final months of this riparian journey.
Where there is water
The underbelly of earth
Is laughing so hard
It’s wet itself
La tierra del sol y cobre–
Once a storm of sandstone
Had a seabed churning
Waving at the heavens
Now it is
Lost of its sea
San Pedro, San Pablo
Burst at once
Melted the ocean
La tierra del sol y cobre
Left the marbled earth
To bake in the southern sun
A crucible of copper
Carved of wind
The little that remains
One morning, still sleepy eyed, gravity decides to abandon you. Thinking that you are just drifting back into a dream, you leave your chair at the breakfast table, rise above the toast and jam, boiled eggs and coffee, reach out to get one last sip of java as a bit sloshes out and stains your nice shirt. Now you know you’re awake. You feel anxious to be late for work, to be wearing slippers rather than shoes as you float out the window into public airspace, there is a bit of toothpaste on your face, as you rise, and rise, and rise straight up, above the neighborhood, watching all the other people down there doing people things, bringing their kids to school, walking the dog. What will I tell my boss? Did I leave the damn stove on?
But as you witness the slow unfolding of earth below, the patches of green, the blue of the sea, the curve of the horizon against the forbidding black of space, you forget those worries, and you see this planet in all its humble and thrilling form with the clouds rolling over you like a swimming pool of egyptian cotton, and speaking of Egypt, there it is, the brown and brown and brown of earth, the little pyramids and the stretch of green, that long thread of life we call the Nile. And then around you go, past India where you smell the sweet spice of Madras and the indian ocean and the climbers on Mt Everest up north look like little lego people, and the Earth is spinning and you feel dizzy, and over the Pacific Ocean, what if I fall in there?? And then South America, and over the red flowing sediment of the desert an earsplitting roar comes out of nowhere, and a jet airplane rushes by. In the intense adrenaline of that moment, time slows to a crawl, and as the turbulence around the Boeing 737 shakes your very bones, you see me and my curly hair and wide eyes, ogling out the window at the desert below, and you think, what on earth has this kid on such a sugar rush about this barren land that looks like the coffee stain on my shirt?
Well, here I am, alive in the desert. And I want to tell you why I am so excited about it.
Stretching west from the Andes, from southern Peru and southwestern Bolivia, through northern Chile and Argentina, along 600 miles of Southern Pacific coast is the Atacama. Marked by high peaks and volcanoes, enormous salt flats, canyons wandering through the sandstone, and hundreds of mines active and abandoned, the Atacama is often recognized as the driest place on earth. But for Antarctica, this is true, yet the Atacama has supported humans living here for 13,000 years or more. Atacameño peoples have made the oases of this desert home, cultivating the arid soil with water from the slightest of rivers, or vertientes and ojos de agua, desert springs falling from the cliffs or welling up out of nowhere. Civilizations like Tiahuanaco and the Incas traded and at times had sovereignty over communities in the desert, using the great wealth of mineral resources and access to the sea to their advantage.
I was drawn here on my geopoetic quest by the lore of Río Loa, Chile’s longest river, which tumbles and winds its way from the fractured rise of Miño Volcano through 440km of desert until it meets the Pacific. The Río Loa and its tributaries are truly remarkable. Fed at once by snowmelt from the peaks, and by springs and geothermal upwellings, even geysers, the river, apart from its staggering canyons, is not what many people would recognize as a river. In the abundance of water of New England for example, Río Loa would be no more than a brook, but here, it is everything.
When I flew into Calama, I was relieved to breathe the crisp desert air, air that reminded me so much of home in New Mexico. Outside, the sun was hot, and with this sensation, I felt the twisting of seasons having just entered austral autumn, coming from the northern winter. Not only that, it was my first time across the equator.
Doña Virginia Panire, a friend of my professor from College of the Atlantic, Patricia Ayala Rocabado generously offered to pick me up at the airport. Doña Virginia came and met me, explaining that she had arranged for me to stay at her sister’s home in town. On the way, we stopped at El Parque Loa, Loa Park, and I got my first real glimpse of the river. The city has put up some small dams to create a swimming hole in the river, and there are places to walk and sit on either side. The flow is not very dramatic, but Doña Virginia told me that in February there was a lot of rain in the mountains and the river rose enormously. I learned that this is a feature of the “Bolivian Winter” when during El Niño years, the Andes receive lots of precipitation from the pacific.
Doña Virginia started telling me about the region as we walked around, pointing out a replica of a church in Chiu Chiu, the oldest church in Chile, and some of the mountains and volcanoes around the area, San Pedro and San Pablo, and Paniri, a mountain with which Doña Virginia shares her family name. She explained to me that their family is rooted in Turi and Ayquina, villages to the east near Paniri, and that they only live in Calama so that their kids can attend school.
From Parque Loa we drove to the house where Doña Irma, Virginia’s sister was waiting. She showed me my room, which is actually a studio for spinning and weaving wool. I felt so welcome and their warmth was remarkable, treating my as a friend before we all remembered each other’s names.
Over the following days I learned that Doña Irma and her husband Don Rene have three boys, Matias, Juan, and Tomas, and Doña Virginia has one, David. All of the kids play music, Andean music with various groups here in Calama. I learned that Doña Irma is working with wool for a living, and Don Rene worked in the hospital for many years as a paramedic, and now he and Doña Irma run a hotel/restaurant in Ayquina on the weekends, and he does construction work and all kinds of things during the week.
On Thursday we went to the Calama shopping mall to see the opening of a product that Doña Irma worked on called Volvimos a Tejer, “Back to Knitting.” It is a bag that comes with three balls of yarn made from a sheep and alpaca wool blend, and knitting needles. It also has instructions about how to knit. Doña Irma and her friends spin the wool for the bags, and it is sold in big department stores called Paris all over Chile. The idea is that here working with wool is an extremely important part of life, and has been a livelihood for people in the region for centuries. Doña Irma wants to encourage young people to continue the practice and tradition and Paris wants to sell products made locally.
Though it was commercial, it was good to see that this big business was supporting Doña Irma and the other women of the group. Doña Irma told me excitedly that she dreams of making a wool cooperative in Turi, the village where she grew up and where her mom still lives and keeps sheep, goats, and llamas.
On Friday, Don Rene and Matias and I drove out of Calama to Ayquina. There was a major dust storm with wind blowing east, bringing dust from the copper mines at Chuquicamata all across the desert. On the way to Ayquina we stopped at Laguna Inka Coya, a salty lake in the middle of the desert that confounds visitors and scientists alike. The formation is very deep, so deep that people are not sure of the source. It is coming from groundwater, and some people believe a legend that is is actually an “ojo del mar” an eye of the sea, and that the water is actually seawater. It is an anomaly in the desert where all other lakes only fill if there is rain, and otherwise remain as enormous salt flats in the desert.
Arriving in Ayquina I was surprised by the number of houses. There were hundreds of houses, but I was told that only seven houses are actually occupied. Why so many others? I asked. Don Rene and Matias went on to explain that Ayquina hosts an enormous festival every September for the Virgin of Guadaloupe, and 70,000 people come to Ayquina to celebrate. The rest of the year the town is like a ghost town, and because of a conflict with the government about money stemming from the celebration, the town remains a private entity, without services of the state like electricity. There is a generator for the village that runs for just two hours at night, so for the rest of the time, it is either solar power, personal generators, or no electricity. Because Don Rene and Doña Irma run a restaurant and hotel, they have a generator.
Ayquina sits in an opening to a canyon of the Rio Salado (Salty River), and the resturant, El Valle, is the center of town, next to the church. The view out the front window is staggering–it looks right out over the canyon and the small parcels of corn and alfalfa growing with water from a vertiente that comes right out of the canyon cliffs. In the evening after we arrived and gathered firewood (pallets that Don Rene brings from Calama), we started up the woodfire oven as friends of Don Rene’s began to arrive. They were friends from his time at the hospital, and we all sat together sharing drinks and stories through the evening.
The next morning as Don Rene was preparing to roast mutton over an open fire, I went off on an adventure up the canyon, walking through the river and thinking about the weeks and months to come.
The canyon is about 200 feet deep, and after the arable land around the vertiente at Ayquina, the canyon starts to narrow, and the walls get steeper. There were animal tracks all over that I could follow, and along the sides of the river, a type of wide sedge was growing that reminded me of the type of plants in the intertidal wetlands in Maine, something that likes salt. Further up the canyon, the sheep tracks went up and there was a choke where some enormous boulders had fallen from the walls onto the river. I climbed around in these rocks the size of houses for a while, feeling the intense vulnerability of a human in such a place, so many stories of people heading into canyons and never coming back.
Leaving the rocks, I went to the north side of the canyon where I could see some small constructions under an overhang. Climbing up, I followed a path that was fairly easy to make out over volcanic pumice stone. On the way I was stopped dead in my tracks by some petroglyphs carved into the canyon. I just stood there staring for awhile, wondering who carved this face and the llamas and the little people on the wall. Struck by the wonderful reality that someone hundreds or thousands of years past was communicating with me, telling me something, a small fragment of the past.
Then I looked into the little constructions under the overhang. There wasn’t much there, but I couldn’t help but feel the thrill of this place, that humans could be here, live here, for so long. I continued out of the canyon where I had to jump a sheep fence where a sheep had been less successful than I. At the top I was struck by how different the world in the canyon was from up top. Up top it was windy, the plants were all diminutive, and the horizon felt so, so far away.
Back in Ayquina after climbing out of the canyon, I got a ride to watch Matias play soccer with the Ayquina team against the neighboring village Chiu Chiu. They played on a pure dirt field, no grass. It was quite something to watch them play with the 20000 foot volcanoes in the background. I forgot my camera, so you’ll just have to imagine. After the game we returned for lunch, and we munched the amazing roasted mutton.
In the evening, we went out to Turi, a village much smaller than Ayquina to celebrate mother’s day with Doña Virginia and Doña Irma’s mom Doña Maria. Turi isn’t directly on the river, rather it is watered by a vertiente, a spring that just bubbles up from the ground. It is quite near Volcan Paniri, where Doña Irma told me she has an apple orchard. Turi is also home to Pokara, an Incan ruin, one of the largest in Chile. I didn’t get the chance to explore it yet, but I will. Matias and I went outside at some point and the stars were booming across the sky. For the first time in my life I saw the Southern Cross and the deep blue of the Milky Way around it.
I will post night sky photos soon, but not yet.
On Sunday we prepared lunch and served it to people who had come to church in Ayquina. Doña Irma and Don Rene made chicken, pork ribs, and llama meat, soup, and salad. After cleaning up, we headed back to Calama.
In the evening I sat looking at maps for hours. I found the headwaters of the Río Loa, on Volcan Miño pass through a canyon called Quebrada de Mal Paso, the canyon of bad passage. For the first 150 kilometers of the river’s journey, there are no towns and at over 12,000 feet of elevation the place is cold and scattered with canyons on all sides, making it difficult to cross. Further on, as the river starts passing through towns, the water diminishes dramatically because the mine at Chuquicamata has bought up water rights from many of the villages for use processing ore, and sometimes this leaves the river dry.
Below Calama the river goes through a series of intense canyons in absolute desert as it makes a u-turn through the desert and then arrives and Quillagua, before heading straight west through the biggest of all the canyons, at least half a mile deep, before it wanders into the Pacific.
I started reading studies on the water quality of Loa and its tributaries, and especially noted the high levels of arsenic as well as other heavy metals like mercury and even detergents. One paper I read blamed most of the serious pollution on the mine, but an article from the Journal of Applied Geochemistry notes that the waters in the area are heavy in arsenic and other metals as a result of the groundwater coming from young volcanic rock, for example the Río Salado is born from geothermal geysers at El Tatio. The article blames the mine some, but moreso it blames evaporation and water impoundment for the concentration of harmful materials.
In 1997, the town of Quillagua was devastated when floods, not unlike those that Doña Virginia told me happened this February, caused sediment in three reservoirs above the town to get stirred up. This sediment was holding unnaturally high concentrations of heavy metals that had built up over time behind the dams. Suddenly the water went from having 300 µg/L (micrograms per liter) of arsenic to having 30000 µg/L, while the recommended maximum for drinking water is just 50 µg/L. This flood apparently devastated the crops, animals, and the people in Quillagua, a town that at the time had not received rain in 40 years. It has still to recover and most residents have left. Quillague is considered the driest town on the planet, and the Loa, the oasis, was what kept it alive. The floods also seriously damaged the fishery off the coast.
With all this in mind, I am redressing my plans to trek the length of the river – the Quebrada de Mal Paso, the heavy metals, the danger of canyoning alone, and the potential for drinking seriously polluted water along the Río, even with a good filtration system, it probably isn’t safe. Tomorrow and Thursday I am going on a reconnaissance to explore the river in a vehicle, to see what these places really look like. Reporting back soon.
Look out the window
The dark of space, the light earth
In the face of a rational, scientific approach to the land, which is more widely sanctioned, esoteric insights and speculations are frequently overshadowed, and what is lost is profound. The land is like poetry: it is inexplicably coherent, it is transcendent in its meaning and it has the power to elevate a consideration of human life.-Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams
I am in between river journeys now, a perfect time to write about what these last months in the wintery north have held.
The Torne River flows in a landscape of taiga forest marked by the Baltic Sea to the south and the pitched mountains along the Norwegian coast to the north, a region dramatically affected by glaciation from Earth’s most recent ice age and is today frozen half the year. When I met Kjell Kangas who grew up in the region, he told me that he thinks of Tornedalen, Torne Valley, more as archipelago than river valley. Over the heaths and bogs of land still upwelling, lightened from the weight of billions of tons of ice, flow five large rivers — Torne, Kalix, Lainio, Tarendo, and Muonio. Each river is connected to the four others as if the water is weaving a web around the taiga forest, and most impressively, none of these rivers has a dam.
In winter, Torne is a 550 km blanket of snow covering a foundation of blue, crystal ice that in many places will support the weight of a tractor. Elsewhere, long tumbling rapids prohibit the ice from forming, and the black river bursts through its icy ceiling, raging white over stones and reminding the traveler of caution, that this is indeed a lively river.
For 200 km, Torne marks the boundary between Sweden and Finland, and many of the Tornedaleners who generously invited me into their homes and shared stories of the place, told of the compelling history that entwines itself through the borderland. Linguistically, Tornedalen is home to Swedish, Sámish, Finnish, Miënkieli, and most recently English. Miënkieli literally means “our language,” and it is a form of antiquated Finnish that has absorbed some Swedish over the years. It is the living, breathing reminder that just over 200 years ago, there was no boundary in Tornedalen, and the residents were northern Finns, Sámi, and Kvener, not Swedish speakers, living within the Swedish Kingdom that maintained sovereignty over the region since the middle ages.
Then suddenly in 1809 Russia annexed Finland from the Swedish Crown, maintaining influence until the Russian Revolution when Finland took the opportunity to become a sovereign nation in 1917. Through the Great Wars and the rest of the last century, Tornedalen evolved under the auspices of neighboring nation states, at once being torn apart and maintaining a quiet unity across the water, probably aided by the fact that the river becomes lined with ice roads from bank to bank for six months of the year when ice dominates its surface.
My experience in this region cannot be summarized easily, and the reflections will last a lifetime. I was confronted with fragments of nature, myself, and human society around every corner. The fundamental state of this river — a clean, damfree, fishfull, peaceful boundary water — is an uncommon circumstance, and it hosts the largest salmon run in western Europe. It is truly a sanctuary for life.
After I finished skiing, I taught in the Pajala school, midway along the river’s course, grades 4-9, thanks to Kjell who works there. When speaking with the students, telling them about the dire situation along the Ganges River and its tributaries in Nepal, I asked them to consider what it would be like if the Swedish city upstream, Kiruna, was home to 10,000,000 people instead of 20,000 and had no proper sewage treatment. This gained some exasperated reactions, especially when I showed them an aerial view of Varanasi and one of the sewage drains into the Ganges. But in that moment it occurred to me that it doesn’t take 10,000,000 to pollute a river. Kiruna’s 20,000 people could make Torne’s waters ripe with harmful bacteria and protozoa, at least enough to make the water not potable, while now it is.
A thorough and regulated mode of processing sewage and strict regulations for pollution and on damming can maintain the abundance of life in a river and keep it pure enough to drink right out of the flow. For many of the Swedish born students in Pajala, the reality of Torne River’s purity was an unimpressive fact. But in the school are many refugees, and the students from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan could not believe the bounty of fresh water when they arrived.
A river is not unlike a person; if confined by artificial boundaries, literal like prison bars or figurative like debt, one is stifled even to a tragic degree; if overwhelmed with toxins — sugar, alcohol, drugs, chemicals — the body will unravel dispelling potential for life, especially without modern medical convenience. If one attains the nebulous yet rich heart of freedom, there is opportunity to flourish and to carry others in the wake. I am not trying to say that a dirty river cannot be free, or for that matter a person who takes drugs or is in prison cannot be free, but that perhaps we can form an ideology that places the very land, water, and resources that sustain us in a position of power, with rights, as a gift to ourselves.
Is not freedom the heart of worldly attainment, the foundational goal of so many of our collective ideologies? Is freedom just for us, or can a river be free, a forest, a mountain? Freedom is not achieved alone, but as part of a web of life. Can we work our way in a global world to at once engage our hunger for technology and imbue ourselves with morals embedded in nature, imbue the landscape with its own rights and economy? In a world fissuring at the folds of religion and polarized by nationalism, there is one place that human spirit lies which is common to all of us, in nature.
These journeys are showing me how to rewild myself, my vocabulary, my interactions; how to unlearn the manicured social contracts, lawns of the imagination, that I have with the earth in order to see with fresh eyes that there are bountiful opportunities for us humans to reconnect with one another and our shared landscapes. It’s a matter of revaluing “sense not cents” and thinking like a river, like a bed of soil, to think of gardeners as the aristocracy of connectedness, those who understand the relationships that enable life.
I’ve recognized something about my project that is fitting to close this letter. In many ways I am a pilgrim, searching for everything and nothing, partial only to the path of the river and nature, and the people who happen into my life as a result. I am not trying to unearth anything in particular, to inform a literal map of any area, but rather I will my conscious effort into a rivercentric perambulation that is trying to get at the poetry of land that Barry Lopez writes about, at the heart of nature, that strives so intently to pursue a natural flow, a force among forces.
As I move about, letting the ineffability of the landscape and other people fill this time, I cannot express the gratitude I feel for the opportunity. Thank you.
From the flow,
A jagged line
Of earth pining for sky
Rolling off the forest
Heavenbound and Earthheld
Ever so slowly
In blue ice and sand
Carried by skyfall
That floods all
Skiing from Nikkaluokta, looking up at the black granite cliffs and the wind waves of snow and ice that cross the nearly vertical faces lining the valley, I was fixated. Something inside of me felt at once exhilarated and unrestrained, the kilometers melted into the snow beneath my skis, numbers and language felt to mean nothing, effervescent reminders of how I learned to understand the world only one of an infinity of ways. The mountains breathed fresh air into my lungs and set my mind afire.
The first day I made it early to Kebnekaise Fjëllstation, a beautiful mountain lodge built into a fold of mountain birch just below Kebnekaise Mountain, the tallest peak in Sweden, just breaching 2,000 meters. Looking at the lodge from a distance, I was surprised that it hadn’t been carried off by an avalanche, but the birch grove suggested that this might be a safe(er) place. Kebnekaise was the first STF establishment where I stayed. STF is the Swedish Tourism Federation, and they maintain the huts and stations along Kungsleden as it is a popular ski and trekking route. People flock from all over the world in March to ski the good conditions and spend some time in the immensity, letting their minds and bodies expand through the open air and the newly long days.
I considered leaving Kebnekaise to continue to the next hut when in walked Örjan Pekka, the editor of the Haparanda Bladet newspaper who I met the day I started. Örjan and his friend Berth Widmark, a mechanic and retired firefighter, had driven snowmobiles from Kalix (just west of Haparanda) north, and we happened to arrive here at the same time. Örjan introduced me to Nisse Andersson who was at the Fjëllstation working as electrician. Not a bad day on the job. We got to talking and hit it off, sharing a love for skiing and travel.
In the evening when Nisse, Berth, and Örjan went for dinner, I was sitting with a young guy named Matti Rapila Andersson, a photographer and skier who was also up for work. Matti got to stay 11 days in the mountains, the lucky dog. Both feeling high on life, we got to talking. He showed me his photographs and told me stories about from where they came. One of an island of forest in the Moroccan desert burst from the page, an ode to the force of life in hostile environments. It can be seen here in his collection (t)here is (ho)me: http://www.rapila.se/there-is-home/. Our conversation rambled through nature, work, and whatever emerged. After dinner the men returned and we talked and had beers until late at night. There I was in the afternoon expecting a quiet early night in, and instead I was welcomed by a party!
The generosity and kindred spirits of these people left me feeling so good. I am no loner in the way of thought, there are so many people on the life-train I’m riding, and I am always grateful to meet them, to invigorate the senses and the intellect with stories and debate, and then to carry on, new lessons breaching my consciousness.
In the morning, after a delicious breakfast thanks to Nisse, I was off. Skiing on, I thought if the himalaya, over four times the size of these scandinavian titans. No matter about size, here the peaks rise right off the atlantic coast and the grace of mountains swimming in snow from floor to summit is overwhelming to me, an earthbound amoeba on plastic planks towing my life in a sled.
The morning brought me up and over a small pass with beautiful blue ice that glinted when the mountain mist parted for the sun. This blue on the crest of the pass is the headwaters of Kalix River, meandering arm-in-arm with Torne to the sea, but at the moment in a winter stasis.
In the afternoon I took a shortcut over a low ridge that promised some fresh powder on the downslope. At Kebnekaise I was made aware that avalanche danger was high because of warm days in February and high winds making solid crusts that can break and slide. Staying low and on southwestern slopes was best, but I could see a few places where slides had happened. Nonetheless I made it over the ridge and descended into a wonderland of a valley, rimmed by the kebnekaise massif on one side and a long wall of mountains with rolls of cliff dropping to valley bottom.
The turns going down felt the height of living, as though I was enveloped in the immensity of granite and snow upon which the friction that had caused my legs such expenditure of effort no longer had the power to keep me in place. Skiing downhill is as close as I’ve ever been to flying on my own two legs, and too fleeting it is. As I came to a stop in the rolling flats, I laughed at myself for skiing a 500km approach to make these sweet turns. It was all worth it.
The next three days are a blur of white, rolling billows of mountain snow, saunas and evening conversations with tourists, meeting the kind people who mind the mountain huts, and a sensory experience of walking on winter that submersed my mind in a peace of enormity.
The mid-section between Nikkaluokta and Abisko is a complete desert in winter. Between the pass from Kebnekaise through the awe inspiring expanse around Sälka hut and until Alesjaure, over 50km of skiing, I didn’t see any plants, nor animals, even birds. Yet life never felt so ripe with essence as in an environment such as this: the high peaks, ceaseless desert—just like the rolling ocean.
As I approached Abisko National Park from Alesjaure, I could sense closure on the horizon. The knowing that this ski trip was nearly over sat very well with me. A brief reflection helped me see that what Nan Shepherd referred to as a “geopoetic quest” had just unfolded before my ski tips, and the lessons were at once present and deepening, but inexplicable to my rational mind. There was not time for extraversion in those mountains, the peaks are not concerned with my journey, but realizing my privilege to be there, I understood that I could introvert myself into the belly of the peaks.
In a narrow valley between Gárddenvárri and Šiellanjunni, beautiful Sámi-named peaks, I dug into a snow ridge to build a home for myself for the night. The exercise was not as quick as I imagined, and after four hours of steady digging, and soaking myself to the bone to recreate the blueprint I had in mind, I had a wonky but functional snow cave where I could intern myself into the mountain for the night, but not before catching some turns.
To dry off, I skied up the nice powder blanket of the lee-slope and caught some telemark turns in the powder, looking down the valley towards Abisko and the gnarled birch forest. Up there it became apparent to me that I was was really truly standing on the headwaters, that the stream flowing below the heaps of snow in this little valley soon connects to Kamjåjakka, then becomes Ábeskojávri—Abisko Lake, then Abiskojåkka—the Abisko River, a principle headwater tributary of Torne that meets the river’s flow in the great depths of Torne Trask.
Returning to my cave, dry and happy after my ski, I cooked up some dinner. Moments after digging in, a helicopter nearly shaved my head, and flew out of sight over the windridge, but the deafening sound told me it was landing. Like a nervous rat I scurried up the wind ridge to ensure that my house didn’t cave in, and the heli was just a hundred feet away. Then I looked up and saw some dots flying down Šiellanjunni—heli skiers.
As the flew off waving to me eating my dinner, I was flabbergasted at this wild world. Feeling full I crawled into my cave and sealed the door and with it, sealed out the noise of the world. The quiet of that cave resounded and a fugue of mountain winter entered my consciousness, a symphony of a wilded mind—here I was, sleeping in the river, submerged.
This journey has no end. As rivers have no end, no beginning, but are a fluid fabric holding the world in a trance of movement and wild choreography.
“The river is everywhere at once, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the rapids, in the sea, in the mountains, everywhere at once, and there is only the present time for it, not the shadow of the past, not the shadow of the future…”
-Herman Hesse, Siddhartha
The birds arrive
They flit about
Pecking at frozen pine nuts
Doing nothing much
I am still skiing
Eating, talking, sleeping
Floating through resting lands
Doing not so much
Jukkasjarvi’s 90cm thick ice quickly thins as Torne passes a narrow place before leading to another wide wandering lake before Kurravaara. I did not make it that far because I veered west towards Kiruna.
Climbing out of the valley was hard work, but as I made my way up, I could see the clouds bursting from the iron mine’s towers next to the mountains in the distance. Max Hensler, Yasmine, and their boys, the family from Övertorneå, were on their way north to see the ice hotel, so we agreed to have lunch in Kiruna… a deadline! I had to be in town by 2:00 so I skied hard up the hills. The apartment buildings of Kiruna looking so alien to me in the distance. I haven’t seen buildings like that since Haparanda.
Finally making over the crest into town, I found Max and Yasmine at Empes, a classic style burger and milkshake stand in town. My burger, the signature, had mashed potatoes, bacon, two patties, and cheese, and I had a chocolate milkshake. That is all I will say. And it was great to see my friends from Övertorneå.
Feeling full, I went off to find the apartment of Sanne and Isak. Sanne is Kjell Kangas from Pajala’s daughter and Isak is her boyfriend. I found the place pretty easily, and Isak was cooking up some food, a Swedish stroganoff . Fortunately, having skied a lot, I am able to eat anything anytime, so I happily lunched a second time with them.
Sanne works in a watch shop in town and is a painter. I got to stay in the studio room which was nice. Isak is a chef and he grew up in the very far north near the point where Sweden, Norway, and Finland meet. His family are Sámi and his father carves beautiful knife handles and figures out of reindeer bones. He told me stories about going berry picking in the summer with his mother and selling the harvest to people in Norway.
The first night I arrived, Isak, Sanne, and David, Isak’s cousin, sat around with beers, talking and listening to music. They showed me some yoik, which is a type of Sámi singing without works, but with amazing wandering melodies. Listening, I couldn’t keep from noticing how these sounds remind me of the landscape here, music woven into and from the surroundings.
Isak and Sanne also have a number for pets: a very friendly and excited dog named Yolandi and two rats, Ninja and Nalta. The dog and the rats get along pretty well, I was surprised to see, though Sanne and Isak think Yolandi secretly wants to eat them. For safety and comfort, the rats have a four story apartment building with a balcony that somewhat resembles Isak and Sanne’s apartment building.
I spent two days with them relaxing and cooking with Isak. It was good to rest and plan my route north. I’ve heard that the ice on Tornetrask, the big W shaped lake at the head of Torne, didn’t freeze until very late this year. A colleague of my father, a climate scientist named Jim Overland, recently published research that early winter temperatures in the arctic this year and last year have been around 6°C warmer than usual. That is an astonishing number, about 11°F, and people here have noticed.
Håkan Lundstrom in Vittangi told me that when he was a kid it would remain below -30°C for weeks on end. This year it rarely dropped below that. The record low there is -53°C, and this year it only got to -37°C. Things are warming up.
Since above Kurravaara there are no towns along Torne, and the word is that ice is thin, I decided to ski west to Torne’s sister, Kalix River and the town of Nikkaluokta, where one of the main routes along the famous Kungsleden trail begins.
Skiing out of Kiruna was industrial. I had to ski around the mine, and as I went, I could hear the sounds of heavy machines. I skied along north of the mine and around a windfarm, and I noticed how much dust was on the snow near the mine, and the sound of the machines could be heard for a few hours, until I was at least 10km off.
Then I was in beautiful stunted birch forests with the mountains not far off. I descended into the Kalix Valley, which, from above, looks remarkably similar to the Torne Valley as it approaches the headwaters. Coming out of the mountains, the river goes through a number of large lakes separated by narrows, on the lakes the ice is thick and blue, but in the narrows it thins and even disappeared. I stayed one night between lakes before heading over Paitasjarvi, the biggest of the Kalix lakes.
Paitasjarvi is about 20km end to end, and as I skied, the tail end of a storm was heading east, that meant heavy head winds, occasional flurries, and a slow, difficult ski to Nikkaluokta. The winds erased the snowmobile trails, so I was really working. In the distance, I could make out the black granite face that a man at the head of the lake had pointed to saying “Nikkaluokta,” but the more I skied, the further away it seemed.
Suddenly out of the wind appeared a figure on the lake. Closer, I could tell it was a man. Closer still and I saw five big piles of snow and ice, and he was working. Fishing. He was catching pike and char, and I later found out this was Arne, a Sámi reindeer herder from a village along the lake. We had a nice, broken conversation in Swedish-English and he told me “Nikkaluoka, half mile!” In Sweden this means 5km, a Swedish mile being 10. I later learned that in Sámish, though I can’t remember the words, the translation of a swedish mile is literally, “how far a dog can hear.”
Soon I was in Nikkaluokta, totally beat from the long day, and I skied/tumbled into the Nikkaluokta Sarri AB, a hotel/camping at the gateway to the mountains. Flying outside was the Sámish flag in front of the snowy peaks, and inside I met Anna Sarri, the woman who runs the hotel there. Nikkaluokta is on one end of a very popular ski route that runs through the high mountains from Abisko to the north, my final destination on the banks of Tornetrask. Part of the route follows Kungsleden, or King’s Way, a long hut-to-hut trail through Sweden’s northern peaks.
In Nikkaluokta, I met Anna’s son PärHenrik, Ellen, and Mårten, young reindeer herders working in the winter season driving tourists on snowmobiles through the mountains. They were good fun, and told me some about how the reindeer work. This time of year is calving season, and so they don’t want to disturb their animals, but in the summertime, they will gather them up and take them to camps where they count them and take some to slaughter, making sure they keep the herd in good shape and proper numbers. There are regions of Sámi herding territory where different families get to keep their animals. I asked Ellen how many reindeer her family had, and she said, “oh, you don’t ask that, it’s like asking how much money someone has.” Alright, I thought, how cool, it’s not about money.
Ellen showed me a map of the herding regions, and they are really different from the Swedish map, with long regions running from the northwest in a usually southeasterly direction, mostly following the rivers… you know me, I liked this logic of space. I went to sleep grateful for knowing new friends who work on the land and water, and eager for the days to come, out of the Torne Valley and into the mountains.
From the valley
Spruce and fir
Fade to gnarled birch
Watching time pass
Feeling the mountains move
They tumble overhead
Dancers in the night
On a one track mind
To document earth
Mapping space and time
So that it fits into
The last days brought spring, good friends, connections with ice, critical help from satellite imagery, wonderings about life and death, and hotel suites carved of Torne Ice.
Summertime in Junosuando was blueberries, fishing in the slow river, mushroom picking, and row boating. It was a time of light and natural bounty, and it will be so again soon. If you have been reading since August, you will remember that I have been this way before.
I skied into Junosuando looking at the first familiar sight I have seen during the journey — a hill with a communications tower on top, the landmark that Mikael pointed me to months ago, to find my direction. I followed the hill towards the river since I was coming from Kangos, and pretty soon I saw the big white house surrounded by birch trees. Now there were ice carts and skis instead of bicycles. I left my skis and pulka and took a cart up the road past the church and school to Mikael and Maya’s little red house.
Mikael and Maya and their three girls live on the corner just 300 meters from the place where Mikael’s father was born. Maya is from Ontario with an Indian father from Karnataka, and she and Mikael met while traveling in India. After settling in Sweden, they started their business, Aurora Retreat, to make a living and support the family.
Both have a breadth of knowledge about crafts, the outdoors, and nature, so for their retreat they run a wilderness camp, The Three Rivers Camp. The camp is a cluster of octagonal wooden houses on a point where Tarendo River leaves Torne with more than half of Torne’s water. Tarendo links to Kalix River and at the point where the rivers bifurcate, the vast space of water looks like a lake.
I stayed for a few days at the guesthouse/youth hostel that Mikael and Maya run in Junosuando. The days there were full of nice conversations, baking, and hanging out with Sonia, their youngest daughter, who is a unique character; she is blind and has a mind that works differently than most. Her memory for detail is astonishing and she can tell you every flavour in food she eats or the smells in the cabinet. Her senses are strong and her presence stronger. Sonia likes to bake, so we did that together, and I got to pick her up from school some days.
Sita, the middle girl, is quiet and determined. By herself she is training to be a gymnast, and upstairs in their little house they have a mat and a small beam where she can practice. She is quite good and has started to compete in Kiruna, a bigger town to the north. Uma, the eldest at 13, is a classical pianist and she plays lots of music, filling the house with Chopin in the evening.
The day I left, Mikael and I set out with Uma towards the wilderness camp. The red cabins lit up with candles and a warm fire raging in the stove, the place is an arctic dream, an escape to a world of snow, pine and spruce, and the quiet of winter birds. He and I stayed the night and Uma skied back. We had a sauna and ate reindeer soup, preparing for the next day.
In the morning it was snowing, and as Mikael and I set out, the fear of falling through the river that has haunted me since Haparanda was on my mind.
The feeling of floating atop a powerful current of water is one of transcendence for me, death feels close, lurking under thin ice. However with Mikael, I was calm. He knows the river near Junosuando very well, and he could point out to me all of the features of the ice and the movements of water. Through wind and snow we went as he showed me how to test the ice, to find where it is thin and thick and how to understand the flow and ebb of the currents.
I started to think, if one had grown up treading on river ice all their life, but had not experienced driving a car, what would it be like to drive a vehicle on the interstate? Probably terrifying, the risk of getting pummeled by heavy machinery uncomfortably high. So perspective, experience, and a rational understanding began to soothe my nerves.
In the afternoon the sky began to clear as we arrived in Kurkkio, a village at the foot of a big rapid in the river, with people living on either bank. Mikael knew a couple there, Hans and Marina who run a charcoal business called Kolektivet which translates to Coalective, a clever name.
We came to the house, which was apparent because of the twin oven enormous charcoal cooker in the yard. Hans came right out and welcomed us in for a plate of delicious bar-b-que and coffee. The charcoal they make is done with birch, and the food has a most amazing flavour unlike any I’ve had before. Hans’ brother and business partner Pär was also in for the weekend as well as an Estonian named Kalev.
They graciously invited Mikael and I to stay the night and have a sauna, which we happily accepted. While they did a bit of afternoon work, we went back out skiing to explore the river. In the awe inspiring slow sunset we saw the Kurkkioforsen, the rapids, and also the other side of town on the other bank of the river. We skied some nice hills and I took a few face plants skiing down on Mikael’s long wooden skis. We got ourselves hungry for dinner.
On return the sauna was nearly ready as was the food, bar-b-que again! So we all sat and ate and drank nice Estonian beers complements of Kalev. After dinner, full and sleepy we all made our own ways to bed.
In the morning, Mikael and I helped load the charcoal ovens with birch before setting out, Mikael back to Junosuando, and I up to Kuoksu. This was the first time I had really skied the river by myself and without a well marked snowmobile trail because the main track veered far overland to the southwest. So cautiously, remembering what I had learned from Mikael, I made my way.
River ice is not to be taken lightly, but rather respected, it can be understood much like the ocean or an interstate. When the river is wide and the flow is slow, the ice will be thick, and the areas of greatest risk will be near the bank where there is a dynamic between land and ice that can cause cracks or holes. When the water is fast and especially steep the ice will open in the middle and one must travel cautiously by the bank, better yet on land. Where there are inlets, there will be open water, and it can be that these openings are covered with snow, dangerous places. Also on the banks there can be springs, natural upwellings that create thin ice where one might not expect.
Satellite maps have helped me very much to see in advance where there is white water, where the river is narrow and fast, and where there are inlets ahead so that I can find myself on the proper bank.
The place names here also indicate the speed of the river. Kukkolaforsen means “Kukkola rapid,” fast water. Junosuando means “Juno slow water,” and Jukkasjarvi means “Jukkas lake.” When the river gets really wide, it’s considered a lake. These names also reflect the heritage of tornedalen– forsen is Swedish, jarvi is Finnish.
Nearly to Kuoksu
River right, good ice
It looks like
Nope, not good ice
Into the forest
I arrived in Kuoksu late, and after asking at one house about a public cabin, I was sent to find Frederick. He was in a huge tractor moving snow, and he and his wife
Mia offered to let me stay in their place which they are building themselves. It was still a bit of a construction site, but I got to talk to them and help put in baseboards. The next morning I was off heading to Vittangi.
There I met Håkan Lundstrom, an old fixture of these woods, an artist, outdoorsman, carpenter, filmmaker, and firefighter. A jack of all trades, he offered to help me pick a route upriver and fed and coffeed me.
The river between Vittangi and Jukkasjarvi is mostly narrow with lots of long rolling houses. It’s about 55 kilometers without a town, just cabins by the river. I saw lots of life–moose, caribou, and plenty of spring birds. The birdsong reminded me of the equinox, spring is here, summer is near.
I stayed two nights on the leg–one in a wind shelter and one in an open public cabin with a sauna and woodstove. It was so good to happen upon that place after a long day of skiing, to find dry wood and a bed.
At Jukkasjarvi the river opens up as though taking a deep breath. The banks are a kilometer apart, and as I would soon find out, the ice is very thick and strong.
From a long way, I could see machines on the ice, it’s real, I thought, knowing that these belonged to the Ice Hotel. On the google earth image, Jukkasjarvi still has ice on it, and the ice hotel is a white pile of melting snow surrounded by the green pixels of spring. An hour of skiing after I first saw the machines, I was standing by the giant tractor forklift pulling two tonne blocks of 3 foot thick blue ice out of Torne. I talked to the guys working out there for a while and they pointed me to where I would stay the night.
I was invited to stay with Carina Henrikkson, the opera singer and theater director who I met in Pajala, and her husband Arne Bergh, the art director and part owner at ice hotel. Arne and Carina live in a beautiful home subtly bedded into the riverbank across from Jukkasjarvi in Poikkijarvi, which literally means “the other side of the lake.” The house is decorated with beautiful wood carvings done by Arne who is a sculptor, and there are photos on the wall of Carina singing in the Ice Globe, a replica of the globe theater that was built here in Torne ice some years ago. The dynamism between these two artists is strong and after a nice dinner Arne and I spoke for hours.
I learned that the Ice Hotel was born as an igloo art gallery housing paintings, but after Arne arrived the idea shifted so that the ice itself became the art, “ephemeral art,” as Arne put it. The ice represents just the most minute sliver of water from Torne and because the hotel rests on the riverbank, in the spring, the water returns to the river.
This morning after breakfast I got toured around, and, well, I will let the photos speak for themselves.
Nearly to mountains
Forests rising as if waves